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The Well Actually

It’s Never Just a Joke

The just-asking-questions crowd, like "comedians" Joe Rogan and Whitney Cummings, wants you to think they're harmless. They're anything but.

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Podcast man Joe Rogan is having a bad time again. As usual, he has said some awful shit and been criticized for it, which is somehow bad because something-something “cancel culture.” We’ve been over this before. Don’t worry, we won’t rehash it again. Instead, I want to look at the way this latest dust-up has somehow become comedy-as-an-institution’s problem, even though Joe Rogan has not done comedy in decades (or perhaps ever, depending on who you ask).  

Over the weekend, comic Whitney Cummings wrote a sanctimonious tweet in defense of Rogan, claiming that “comedians did not sign up to be your hero.” She argues that it is a comedian’s job “to be irreverent and dangerous, to question authority and take you through a spooky mental haunted house so you can arrive at your own conclusions.” But you should not arrive at the conclusion that you are free to criticize comedians for doing, saying, and believing things you find repulsive; rather, you should “stay focused on the people we pay taxes to to be moral leaders.”

My goodness, but this does seem to be the tweet of someone who deeply wants to be called a hero for her irreverent and dangerous work! One does not typically describe one’s own work in this manner because they generally do not regard themselves as an arbiter of right and wrong uniquely tasked with the moral authority to interrogate the powerful. One certainly does not engage in such a project and simply hope that people “arrive at [their] own conclusions” after the report-back! Besides being a waste of time and effort—and comedy is hard and time-consuming as a craft, which we’ll get to in a minute—it is a poor comedian indeed who simply unloads on a crowd and ends up quite happy with just whatever impressions they draw after being guided all that way through the, uh, spooky mental haunted house.

When an audience arrives at a meaningfully different conclusion from the one a performer has guided them toward, it is called bombing, and comics usually try to avoid it. Comedy works best when it manifests a shared affective experience—because the audience gets the joke. (I see you what-abouters invoking the name of the late comedian Andy Kaufman. Consider that the exception proves the rule, and also, let’s be real: Neither Whitney Cummings nor Joe Rogan possesses anything resembling his level of talent.) This is true of just about any kind of live comedy performance, but it’s especially true of stand-up comedy, which is an ethereal and exceptionally challenging format that fundamentally relies on audience and performer being in sync.

And yet Whitney Cummings suggests that she has identified stand-up comedy’s true purpose, and the fundamental calling of the artiste: Just asking questions! Before, brave defenders of bigoted and cruel material would have suggested that offensive jokes rise above criticism because they are “just” jokes. I guess asserting that you’re not even doing jokes at all, that you’re just asking questions, is the logical next retreat of accountability-phobia.

Because of course it’s never just asking questions. Whitney Cummings doesn’t want to take her audience on this weird-ass carnival ride only to have them decide she’s full of shit. She wants them to laugh and to like her and to agree with her and indeed to appreciate her so much that they spend their hard-earned money on consuming her work. It’s not more complicated than that, and anyone who has to assert that their work is “irreverent and dangerous” is more likely than not to be a mouthpiece for the status quo.

Comedians are not some mystical class of revolutionaries put on Earth to guide the ignorant into the intellectual light. They’re not above criticism. Most are just regular people doing a pretty weird, exhausting, emotionally taxing job that involves trying to get enough laughs to make a living—a job that is fundamentally about getting people to like you and to agree with you. To get you.

I know this because I did stand-up comedy in my early 20s. Back then, I loved the art form so much that I even crafted my academic work around it, eventually writing my master’s thesis about gender performance in stand-up. I quit performing after graduate school for a few reasons, among them the fact that doing rigorous intellectual analysis around anything will kill the fun in it, but for me it especially killed the fun of comedy. I also stopped because I came to hate my own material—it was lazy and tasteless and not infrequently offensive, and I knew the effort it would take to produce jokes I could truly be proud of, and I was by then too tired and disinterested to do that work.

Because y’all, stand-up comedy is fucking brutal. And before it is anything else—before it is about being a mystical revolutionary truth-teller in the style of Bill Hicks, or even Dave Chappelle before he took his awful transphobic turn—it is about making people understand you and like you well enough to listen to your thoughts, and to pay you for the privilege.

Learning to do this well means performing six, probably seven nights a week, ideally two or three spots a night if you can find the stage time. It means yelling jokes to four people watching Jeopardy! at the dive bar and begging pizza restaurant managers to let you organize a show. Over months and years, you work your way from five-minute guest spots up to longer sets opening for other comics at, hopefully, actual clubs and theaters. Some people do this long enough to develop an hour of material and start headlining. And they’re still doing the pizza restaurant shows, too.

If you keep this up for years, maybe even decades, you absolutely might make it big—the kind of big-big where you get your sitcom and your specials and your movies made, and walk directly onstage at the Comedy Store whenever the mood strikes, or regular-big, pivoting to sketch or getting a deal writing for another, more famous comedian—or you might become a road comic, selling out laugh shacks across the Midwest until you don’t any more.

So it makes sense that some comics get pissy about rejection and start blaming “cancel culture” for the fact that their material doesn’t resonate with literally everyone on earth. They think they’ve put in their time and earned adulation. That rejection is for newbies and hacks. But it isn’t. Navigating rejection is the craft, and all great comics do it. The shitty ones blame their audiences.


So no, I don’t buy that comedians are at their highest and best when they are delivering offensive, hurtful, ignorant material and calling it “questioning authority” or even “just asking questions.”  Especially when comics believe audiences aren’t allowed to question them right back—by letting a joke flop, by boycotting their shows, or by chucking their old albums in the trash.

We don’t have to treat comedy as religion, or pretend that everybody who drops the N-word onstage is the second coming of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor. Certainly great comedy can be dark and brooding and introspective, or angry and aggressive and righteous, but it needn’t be so in order to serve the form’s true purpose. Most of it isn’t. Most of it’s just, you know, funny. That’s sort of the point. It might be funny because it pokes fun at powerful people, or even shreds powerful people to bits. It might be funny because people are ridiculous and life is a hilarious mess and being a person is hard and weird but also the thing we are all doing all the time. Comedy is not about inviting people to hate you. It is about convincing them to like you.

That’s not the same as only telling people what they want to hear, or never challenging your audience. Great comedians are always looking for new ways to connect with audiences, which is why I liked Aja Romano’s piece at Vox on comedy’s current “existential crisis” — about how comedians today grapple with sharing themselves and their experiences and their worldviews on stage while retaining and entertaining audiences. And I especially liked Rachel Jane Andelman’s Twitter query around comedians whose work feels genuinely brave—such as Hannibal Buress’s takedown of Bill Cosby, or Tig Notaro’s cancer special. I would add to that list Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas and Nanette, and Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes, all of which dig far deeper into what it means to tell a joke to a hostile or skeptical audience—the emotional and intellectual vulnerability required, and the genuine risk of pissing off people who could end your career—than anything Joe Rogan or Whitney Cummings has ever done. 

You don’t hear Buress or Notaro or Gadsby or Esposito whining about not getting enough kudos for their work. It’s always the comics with the biggest platforms, with the most and loudest and dipshittiest supporters, who complain that they still don’t have enough.

Bravery is about vulnerability. It is about being willing to say: Audiences might really abandon me for this in a way that could end my career, but I need to say it because I can’t not, because it is too important and too much a part of who I am to keep quiet about it. That is fucking art. That is fucking revolutionary. It is not the feigned victimhood of the most popular podcaster on Spotify and his thirsty minions. 

Which is why it is interesting to me that comedians who want to be excused from accountability pretend like just telling jokes or the new version, just asking questions and telling no jokes whatsoever, exempts them from folks just plain being able to decide they’re not interested in that shit anymore, and to say so out loud. It pains me to remind you that Whitney Cummings tweeted that audiences should not judge comedians on moral grounds, and that they should “stay focused on people we pay taxes to be moral leaders.” 

I mean, there’s a joke.

If there’s anything closer to being a comedian than being a politician, I’m not sure what it is. Both politicians and comedians are heavily dependent on approval—comedians on laughs, and politicians on votes—and it is no accident that in these “cancel culture” times, both the worst comedians and the worst politicians believe that incumbency, either in the entertainment industry or the political sphere, absolves them from responsibility to the people they literally rely on for their livelihoods. And so it is no surprise that Donald Trump tried to claim that some of the worst shit he ever said was just a joke, or that crappy comics pretend to be “questioning authority” when they mock and deride people with the least power. 

Because so many comics are willing to do genuinely risky work—like calling out rapists, and not like ridiculing trans people—I think the state of comedy these days might actually be healthier than the state of our democracy. Comedy contains multitudes, and it will continue to do so. A few self-important assholes are the problem, and we needn’t let them tell us that there is only one way to participate in anything, whether that’s cultural expressions like stand-up comedy, or politics, or both (and sometimes they really feel like both). Especially if it’s particularly convenient and fiscally beneficial for self-important assholes that the only way for audiences to participate is to love their work (“arrive at your own conclusions,” but only if they align neatly with those prescribed) or shut the fuck up (“stay focused” on anybody but the person doing harm).

And so I guess Whitney Cummings is right. Comedy that serves and shills for the most powerful is both irreverent and dangerous, both for communities and culture. Irreverent because it lacks respect for an audience’s ability to decide for themselves what they want to consume. Dangerous because jokes that reinforce and perpetuate hate and bigotry are never “just jokes,” but cultural scripts that teach us and shape our world and behaviors. So, sure. Dangerous and irreverent. If what this wanky cohort of insecure shock comics wants most is to be affirmed as described as such, they are certainly on the right track.

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